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Acupuncture Revisited

Believers in acupuncture claim it is supported by plenty of published scientific evidence. Critics disagree. Thousands of acupuncture studies have been done over the last several decades, with conflicting results. Even systematic reviews have disagreed with each other. The time had come to re-visit the entire body of acupuncture research and try to make sense out of it all. The indefatigable CAM researcher Edzard Ernst stepped up to the plate. He and his colleagues in Korea and Exeter did an exhaustive study that was published in the April 2011 issue of the medical journal Pain:   “Acupuncture: Does it alleviate pain and are there serious risks? A review of reviews.” It is accompanied by an editorial commentary written by yours truly: “Acupuncture’s claims punctured: Not proven effective for pain, not harmless.” (The editorial is reproduced in full below.)

Ernst et al. systematically reviewed all the systematic reviews of acupuncture published in the last 10 years: 57 systematic reviews met the criteria they set for inclusion in their analysis. They found a mix of negative, positive, and inconclusive results. There were only four conditions for which more than one systematic review reached the same conclusions, and only one of the four was positive (neck pain). They explain how inconsistencies, biases, conflicting conclusions, and recent high quality studies throw doubt on even the most positive reviews.

They also demolished the “acupuncture is harmless” myth by reporting 95 published cases of serious adverse effects including infection, pneumothorax, and 5 deaths. Some but not all of these might have been avoided by better training in anatomy and infection control. (more…)

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An ICD Code for the Running Piglets!

… animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.

– Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986)1

Not too long ago, I came across a disease taxonomy proposed by a certain East-West Medical Research Institute (EWMRI), that includes the kind of fantastic afflictions — such as “running piglet” disorder — fit for the best Borgesian list.

This obscure institute, located at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, Korea, is one of the 800 WHO Collaborating Centres designated to carry out various activities in support of the Organization’s programs. With the collaboration of China, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and the US, this center is working to incorporate medieval Asian disease nomenclature to the 11th version of the International Classification of Disease (ICD-11).
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, General, Science and Medicine

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The Good Rewards of Bad Science

All the world sees us
In grand style wherever we are;
The big and the small
Are infatuated with us:
They run to our remedies
And regard us as gods
And to our prescriptions
Principles and regimens, they submit themselves.

Molière, The Imaginary Invalid (1673)1

The passage above is part of a burlesque doctoral conferment ceremony, where the French playwright Molière (1622-1673) mocks the unscrupulous physicians of his time. “All the excellency of their art consists in pompous gibberish, in a specious babbling, which gives you words instead of reasons, and promises instead of results,” he writes. In Moliere’s plays doctors never cure anyone; they are put on stage just to display their own vanity and ignorance.2 The Spanish painter Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) also took on the same issue by painting in 1799 a well attired jackass taking the pulse of a dying man, in a pose that accentuates the large gem on his hoof.


Image 1. De qué mal morirá (Of what illness will he die?) by Francisco de Goya is held at the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

But if the asinine doctors of Molière and de Goya’s time never cured anyone, it is because they held prescientific views, and believed that disease was caused by imbalances in “humors,” and by malefic influences of the Heavens. Even the most educated among them treated illnesses in good faith by purging, bloodletting and enema at astrologically auspicious times. In contrast, current physicians who for the sake of funding embrace and endorse unscientific views and practices under the guise of CAM or integrative medicine, do so knowing that they often contradict the established principles of physics, chemistry, and biology. Therefore, in addition to promoting “snake oil science”3 (as R. Barker Bausell calls it), these physicians are also guilty of bad faith. Most of this takes place at large academic centers, where funding seems to outweigh the concern for science. As Val Jones, MD, writes in 2009′s Top 5 Threats To Science In Medicine:

Often referred to by David Gorski as “Quackademic” Medical Centers – there is a growing trend among these centers to accept endowments for “integrative” approaches to medical care. Because of the economic realities of decreasing healthcare reimbursements – these once proud defenders of science are now accepting money to “study” implausible and often disproven medical treatments because they’re trendy. Scientists at these centers are forced to look the other way while patients (who trust the center’s reputation that took tens of decades to build) are exposed to placebo medicine under the guise of “holistic” healthcare.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia

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California Forbids Chinese Bloodletting

In November 2010, the California Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) finally decided to act responsibly and forbid the prevalent practice of Chinese bloodletting by licensed acupuncturists.

The practice became a concern for the DCA when allegations of unsanitary bloodletting at a California (CA) acupuncture school surfaced.

The incident allegedly occurred during a “doctoral” course for licensed practitioners. The instructor was reportedly demonstrating advanced needling and bloodletting techniques. During the process, he took an arrow-like lancing instrument that is called a “three-edged needle” (三棱针), sharpened it with sandpaper, cleaned it with alcohol, and then asked a student-volunteer to roll a towel around his neck (similar to what is depicted in Image 1). The instructor then cleaned the student’s temporal region with alcohol, and punctured a superficial blood vessel with the arrow-like instrument. The student then held his head over the garbage can, gushing blood for a while.

Images 1 & 2. Chinese bloodletting. Image 1 shows a technique used to bleed the head or the face, where a towel is rolled around the neck to control the arterial pressure. Image 2 shows the practice of “wet cupping.”

The ancient practice of bloodletting, with or without cupping, is still widely used in Chinese medicine to remove “stagnant blood, expel heat, treat high fever, loss of consciousness, convulsion, and pain.”1 The amount of blood let depends on the condition, and the location of the incision. A contemporary book recommends letting a tiny amount from a point adjacent to the thumbnail for a condition described as “wind-heat invasion” of the lung. The symptoms associated with this unscientific nomenclature include chills and fever, sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, and a yellow discharge,2 which could correspond to many respiratory conditions, including the common cold, influenza, pneumonia, etc.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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The Cargo Cult of Acupuncture

Bloodletting, of course, was a major aim of early vessel therapy and is frequently described in the Su wen.1

Paul U Unschuld

“Cargo cult” is a metaphor that describes the act of imitating an activity or a practice without any insight into the underlying principles. In the literal sense, it refers to a magico-religious practice observed in tribal societies, where the members ritually imitate the activities of a technologically-advanced society they had contact with, so that they can magically draw their material wealth. For instance, after WWII, indigenous tribes in New Guinea who had come in close contact with cargo planes, started to build landing strips and populated them with plane-like effigies that were made of straw, bamboo, and coconuts, so that they can magically lure the passing planes.2 The term “cargo cult science” was introduced by Richard Feynman in a speech at Caltech in 1974 to describe pseudoscientific studies in which all the superficial aspects of a scientific inquiry are adhered to, but the underlying principles are not scientific. He classified many educational and psychological studies as such, for having the appearance of academic research but lacking the principles of a scientific inquiry.3

Another example of cargo cult science is the plethora of two-arm acupuncture studies that compare a needling regimen using the traditional concepts, and compare it with a non-interventional placebo. These studies might have the appearance of clinical research, but they are inherently flawed and inconclusive, because they do not rule out the possibility that the observed results are mainly due to the painful stimulus and injury caused by a needle, which can occur regardless of the insertion point. Indeed, an acute noxious stimulus from a prickle, heat, or any other painful stimulus – almost anywhere on the skin – can attenuate the perception of pain in another area of the body through a reflex called “counter-irritation,” also called the “pain-inhibiting-pain effect” or “diffuse noxious inhibitory control” (DNIC).4 DNIC was extensively studied by Fauve et al. in the 1980s, who showed in mice that it has an effect equivalent or superior to that of glucocorticoids.5,6
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Acupuncture Pseudoscience in the New England Journal of Medicine

Here is the conclusion quoted from a recent New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) review article on acupuncture for back pain:

As noted above, the most recent wellpowered clinical trials of acupuncture for chronic low back pain showed that sham acupuncture was as effective as real acupuncture. The simplest explanation of such findings is that the specific therapeutic effects of acupuncture, if present, are small, whereas its clinically relevant benefits are mostly attributable to contextual and psychosocial factors, such as patients’ beliefs and expectations, attention from the acupuncturist, and highly focused, spatially directed attention on the part of the patient.

Translation – acupuncture does not work. Why, then, are the same authors in the same paper recommending that acupuncture be used for chronic low back pain? This is the insanity of the bizarro world of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). Yesterday David covered the same article, which I had also covered on NeuroLogica, but we both thought this issue important enough to document our thoughts and objections on SBM.

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Credulity about acupuncture infiltrates the New England Journal of Medicine

One of the things that disturbs me the most about where medicine is going is the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine. So prevalent is this unfortunate phenomenon that Doctor RW even coined a truly apt term for it: Quackademic medicine. In essence, pseudoscientific and even prescientific ideas are rapidly being “integrated” with science-based medicine, or, as I tend to view it, quackery is being “integrated” with scientific medicine, to the gradual erosion of scientific standards in medicine. No quackery is too quacky, it seems. Even homeopathy and naturopathy can seemingly find their way into academic medical centers.

Probably the most common form of pseudoscience to wend its way into what should be bastions of scientific medicine is acupuncture. Harvard, Stanford, Yale, M. D. Anderson, and many others, they’ve all fallen under the sway of the idea that somehow sticking thin little needles into points that bear no relationship to any known anatomic structure and that supposedly “unblock” the flow of some sort of “life energy” that can’t be detected by any means that science has. Most recently, as I described, studies that seek to “prove that acupuncture works” have found their way into high quality, high impact journals whose editors should know better but apparently can’t recognize that the evidence in the study doesn’t actually show what the authors claim it shows. Even so, there are some journals that I didn’t expect to see this sort of infiltration of quackademic medicine. Granted, I never expected it to show itself in one of the Nature journals, as it did in the study I just mentioned. I also never expected it to show up in that flagship of clinical journals, a journal that is one of the highest impact and most read medical journals that exists. I’m talking the New England Journal of Medicine, and, unfortunately, I’m also talking an unfortunately credulous article from Dr. Brian M. Berman, who is the founder of the Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine and the holder of multiple NCCAM center grants, and other institutions, entitled Acupuncture for Chronic Low Back Pain.
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Another overhyped acupuncture study misinterpreted

acupinhead

Perhaps the most heavily studied of “alternative medicine” modalities is acupuncture. Although it’s hard to be sure as to the reason, I tend to speculate that part of the appeal to trying to do research in this area is because acupuncture is among the most popular of actual “alt-med” modalities, as opposed to science-based medical modalities co-opted by believers in alt-med and rebranded as “alternative” (diet and exercise, for instance, to which is all too often added the consumption of huge quantities of unproven nutritional supplments) or activities that make people feel better, whether they’re healthy or ill (massage, for instance). In contrast, acupuncture involves actually sticking needles into the skin. Never mind that the rationale for acupuncture, namely “redirecting” the flow of the “life energy” known as qi when it is blocked by sticking needles in “meridians” like some electrodes in some imaginary qi battery, is pure bunkum, as we’ve pointed out here at SBM time and time again. Somehow the image of needles sticking out of the skin, apparently painlessly and making some extreme acupuncture practices resemble Pinhead from the Hellraiser movie series, seems “sexy” as far as “alternative” therapies go, particularly since it’s “Eastern” as opposed to that reductionistically evil “Western medicine,” and, as we all know at SBM, “Western” is bad and “Eastern” is good.

So the fascination with acupuncture remains, so much so that an inordinate amount of research dollars are spent on studying it. Unfortunately, that money is largely wasted. As Steve Novella has pointed out, in general in medicine (at least these days), the trajectory of research is usually from bench research to animal models to small scale, less rigorous, pilot studies in humans to large scale, rigorously designed studies using many subjects. True, this order doesn’t always hold. For instance, if physicians make a compelling observation “at the bedside” of response to therapy or how a disease progresses, frequently, after making closer observations to confirm the initial observation, researchers will jump back to animal models and bench top research to try to figure out what’s going on. For such a progression to be useful, though, scientists have to be sure that the phenomenon in human patients under study actually exists.

Unfortunately, in acupuncture, the evidence is still unconvincing that there is any “there” there in that acupuncture effects appear to be no greater than placebo effects. As larger, more well designed studies using real placebo or sham acupuncture techniques, have increasingly shown that acupuncture does not function any better than placebo in human beings (and sometimes even worse), acupuncturists and acupuncture believers have been reversing the usual order of things, doing smaller studies and “pragmatic” (i.e., uncontrolled) clinical trials, where the placebo effect is not controlled for. Never mind that it doesn’t matter where the needles are placed (thus blowing the whole “meridian” idea out of the water) or even if the needles puncture the skin. Toothpicks work just as well as needles. Also never mind that the mythology of acupuncture as having been routinely practiced for over two thousand years (or, sometimes, four thousand years, is largely a creation of Chairman Mao, who elevated what was a marginal practice at the time to a modality that the state supported and promoted (1,2,3,4). Unfortunately, even the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) falls for this mythology.

Every so often, I’m amazed when an acupuncture study ends up in a high impact journal like Nature Neuroscience. Of course, when I read such articles, virtually inevitably I discover that what is being studied is not really “acupuncture” per se, but rather sticking needles into either people or animals. Sometimes, “electroacupuncture” (which is in reality not acupuncture at all, given that there was no source of electricity hundreds of years ago in China when acupuncture was supposedly invented) is misrepresented as acupuncture. Since a bunch of readers, both here and at my other blog, have deluged my mail box with this particular study, I felt obligated to have a look at it, even if Steve Novella has already weighed in with his excellent deconstruction. This particular study is especially annoying, because it’s been hyped to the nth degree, and even some news sources where the reporters should know better have fallen for it.
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Potential New Mechanism of Pain Relief Discovered

The development of drugs and other treatments for specific symptoms or conditions relies heavily on either serendipity (the chance finding of a beneficial effect) or on an understanding of underlying mechanisms. In pain, for example, there are limited ways in which we can block pain signals – such as activating opiate receptors or inhibiting prostaglandins. There are only so many ways in which you can interact with these systems. The discovery of a novel mechanism of modulating pain is therefore most welcome, and has the potential of leading to entirely new treatments that may have better side-effect profiles than existing treatments and also have additive clinical effects.

A recent study by Nana Goldman et. al., published in Nature Neuroscience, adds to our understanding of pain relief by identifying the role of adenosine in reducing pain activity in the peripheral nervous system. The researchers, in a nice series of experiments, demonstrated that producing a local painful stimulus in mice causes the local release of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) that peaks at about 30 minutes. This correlates with a decreased pain response in the mice. Further, if drugs are given that prolong the effect of adenosine, the analgesic effect itself is prolonged.

Also, if drugs are given that activate the adenosine A1 receptor, the observed analgesic effect is replicated. When these experiments are replicated in knockout mice that do not have the gene for the adenosine A1 receptor, there is no observed analgesic effect.

Together these experiments are fairly solid evidence that local pain results in the local release of adenosine that in turn binds to the adenosine A1 receptor inhibiting the pain response. This is potentially very exciting – it should lead to further investigation of the adenosine A1 receptor and the effects of activating and inhibiting it. This may lead to the development of drugs or other interventions that activate these receptors and may ultimately be a very useful addition to our ability to treat acute and chronic pain.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Acupuncture for Depression

One of the basic principles of science-based medicine is that a single study rarely tells us much about any complex topic. Reliable conclusions are derived from an assessment of basic science (i.e prior probability or plausibility) and a pattern of effects across multiple clinical trials. However the mainstream media generally report each study as if it is a breakthrough or the definitive answer to the question at hand. If the many e-mails I receive asking me about such studies are representative, the general public takes a similar approach, perhaps due in part to the media coverage.

I generally do not plan to report on each study that comes out as that would be an endless and ultimately pointless exercise. But occasionally focusing on a specific study is educational, especially if that study is garnering a significant amount of media attention. And so I turn my attention this week to a recent study looking at acupuncture in major depression during pregnancy. The study concludes:

The short acupuncture protocol demonstrated symptom reduction and a response rate comparable to those observed in standard depression treatments of similar length and could be a viable treatment option for depression during pregnancy.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Obstetrics & gynecology

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